August 21, 2010 in Nation/World

Palestinians, Israel accept invitation to D.C. talks

David S. Cloud, Christi Parsons And Edmund Sanders Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Friday it has invited the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to Washington next month to resume long-stalled direct peace talks, recognizing “there will be difficulties ahead” in the latest effort to achieve a final settlement of the conflict.

In announcing the invitation, which Israel and the Palestinian Authority both accepted, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged it will be a daunting challenge to reach agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and other decades-old disagreements between the sides – particularly in the proposed 12-month timetable.

“There have been difficulties in the past. There will be difficulties ahead,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department. “I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward through difficult times and to continue to work to achieve a just and lasting peace.”

Clinton said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would come to Washington for a dinner on Sept. 1 at the White House with President Barack Obama, followed by a face-to-face meeting of the two leaders that Clinton will convene the following day at the State Department.

After these largely ceremonial talks, the negotiations are likely to continue in the region, with the U.S. acting as mediator and, if necessary, introducing proposals aimed at bridging differences, officials said.

The U.S. will be an active participant, Clinton said, emphasizing that in the end, “these decisions will be made by the parties themselves.” The U.S. was joined in pushing for the peace talks by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Israeli leaders welcomed the invitation.

“Reaching an agreement is a difficult challenge but is possible,” Netanyahu said in a statement Friday night. “We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel’s national security interests, foremost of which is security.”

Netanyahu has long said he is open to talks. Resistance has come from the Palestinians, who have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the terms and conditions of such negotiations.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the Abbas government had accepted after attending an emergency meeting of the body’s executive committee in Ramallah.

But Rabbo said any failure by Israel to halt settlement building on Israeli-occupied land where the Palestinians aim to found a state would endanger the talks.

The peace talks are a breakthrough for Obama, who had made a return to negotiations a top priority of his foreign policy agenda. Administration officials believe simply holding the talks could promote a warming of relations between the U.S. and its allies in the region and thus help build support for other American goals, such as in the war in Afghanistan and the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Still, administration officials know the effort to reach a final settlement is wrapped in complications, with a conservative government in power in Israel and their Palestinian negotiating partner only able to speak for a portion of the Palestinian population.

One White House official Friday described peace talks as a “tradition” in which every American president must participate.

“This is something that there has been a long-standing U.S. commitment to engage with the Israelis and Palestinians on,” said John Brennan, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security. “Previous administrations have dedicated much effort and energy to this, and the Obama administration is carrying this tradition on.”

The decision to seek a final settlement, rather than pursuing a less ambitious goal as a starting point, is a gamble by the Obama administration that has been tried unsuccessfully by previous administrations, notably by former President Bill Clinton in the waning months of his administration.

In addition to settling competing claims for Jerusalem and borders of a Palestinian state, major issues to be negotiated are Israeli security, with the creation of a separate state on the West Bank, and the claims of Palestinian refugees.

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